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August 23, 2014
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Sullivan County’s property taxes - How bad are they?

KEN HILTON

New York State’s property taxes are among the highest of any state, and Sullivan County’s property taxes are among the highest of any county in New York State. Measured simply in dollars and cents, New York’s homeowner property taxes are the fourth highest of all 50 states. The median property tax paid by the typical New Yorker for “owner-occupied housing” in 2009 was $3,755, almost twice the national average.

But there are other ways to look at property tax burdens than only gross dollar figures. One way is to compare the taxes to the values of the homes.

(Watch, in each of the following examples, how the percentage of tax in the right-hand column grows, depending on which figures are used.)

New York State
Median Home Value: $306,000
Median Property Tax: $3,755
Tax as % of home value: 1.2%

Measured this way, New York’s property taxes are only 17% higher than the national rate.

But, perhaps the fairest way to compare the level of taxes is by measuring the incomes of the homeowners. This method, sometimes called the “property tax effort,” looks at the ability of homeowners to afford their property taxes.

State Median Income: $74,777
Median Property Tax: $3,755
Tax as a % of income: 5.0%

Property taxes, however, are not levied by states. They’re levied by local governments, villages, towns, counties and cities. Looking at property taxes among the more than 3,100 counties in the United States, we find great variations not just between states, but within individual states. Here, for instance, are the median property taxes for five New York State counties. (These are annual average figures from 2007-2009 provided by the Tax Foundation. Its study compared the property taxes paid in the 1,823 U.S. counties with populations over 20,000.)

NYS County Median Prop Tax. Median HH Income Tax % ofincome
St. Lawrence $1,536 $51,293 2.98%
Erie $2,885 $62,219 4.64%
Sullivan $3,342 $59,336 5.63%
Orange $5,314 $87,471 6.08%
Westchester $8,474 $110,615 7.66%

But the Tax Foundation figure of $59,336 cited above seems too high. If we plug the U.S. Census figure instead, $48,303, we see an even greater “tax effort” or “tax burden” for Sullivan County taxpayers.

County Median Prop Tax Median HH Income Tax % of income
Sullivan $3,342 $48,303 6.9%

The Tax Foundation figure, $59,336, places Sullivan County at 46th from the top in greatest “property tax effort,” i.e. “tax burden” of the 1,823 counties in the study. But the U.S. Census figure, $48,303, jumps the ranking to the top 10. In other words, our property tax effort /burden—our ability to pay—places Sullivan County among the top 1% of counties nationwide.

Looking at a report from The New York State Comptroller’s Office published in 2006 entitled “Property Taxes in New York State” we can compare the property taxes levied in all 62 NYS counties by the average personal income of each county. This is another way to gauge the affordability of taxes.

Seen this way, the top five NYS counties are all rural–Hamilton and Essex in the North Country, where the annual levy is over $85 per $1,000 of personal income, followed closely by Sullivan, Delaware and Ulster, which levy $70 to $85 per $1,000 of personal income. All 57 other counties in our state are lower—some, like Erie, Wyoming, Chemung, Tioga, Cayuga, Oneida and Jefferson, much lower, under $45 per $1,000 of personal income.

We all understand the need to finance our local governments, schools, libraries and other important government services, and appreciate how important these services are to us all. And we’re confident that our “very high” local property taxes are providing us better schools, libraries and other government services than places where taxes are “very low.”

But, as this article shows, Sullivan County property taxes are among the highest 1% in the entire United States in the only measure that counts–the ability of residents to afford them. We simply can’t continue to pay for local government services in this way. We’ve reached our limit.

Author’s note: Readers are encouraged to study the data cited throughout this article and additional data – information from the Tax Foundation, the U.S. Census, the New York State (NYS) comptroller’s office, and the Final Report of the NYS Tax Reform and Fairness Commission. All are easily accessed on-line or with the help of your local librarian.

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about taxes in Sullivan County contributed by former Sullivan West School District Superintendent Ken Hilton. In future articles, he will discuss related issues, examining the services that are paid for by property taxes, looking at the impact of these taxes on our region and our residents, trying to understand why our property taxes are so comparatively high, and suggesting some possible solutions for lessening their burden.]